Dr. Phil and Sensationalism

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*I wrote this back in November for The Mighty and even though they accepted it, it must have been cut because it never showed up there. I am posting it here to give it a home.

People with severe mental illnesses frequently are portrayed as dangerous killers, or they are portrayed as the harmless “fools” or “idiots” like in the Fisher King. There is one nice thing to say about Dr. Phil’s show that aired November 18th, 2016. The nicest thing I can say is that he didn’t go for either of those stereotypes that most movies, television shows and stories portray; Shelley Duvall did not come across as dangerous or a killer or the happy, go lucky “innocent.”  She was, however, portrayed in a way that made light of psychotic thoughts and features during a time in her life when she is in deep need of understanding and care.

The show took the path of sensationalism and did a disservice to all those who have a mental illness. Duvall, best known for her role alongside Jack Nicholson in the Shining was obviously suffering from symptoms of a severe mental illness. I’m not a doctor, but her symptoms mirror many people (myself included) who have schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or bipolar psychosis.  If I had to guess, I would say that Duvall was actively psychotic based on my experiences with the condition (I have been psychotic numerous times and her thought pattern, paranoia, etc. closely resemble what I went through).

I am disappointed and angry that McGraw didn’t take the high road and interview someone with a severe mental illness who is an advocate and could have gotten through an interview without falling into some of the most serious symptoms displayed by people with schizophrenia or other disorders. For instance, I suffer from symptoms every day but could have talked my way through an interview without disclosing any delusions, hallucinations or conspiracy theories. The same was not true of Duvall. Duvall mentioned a device implanted in her leg that causes her to worry. She also said that Robin Williams, who she acted within the movie, Popeye, was not dead (Williams committed suicide in 2014) but was “shape shifting.” And she claimed that the Sheriff of Nottingham was out to get her, and frequently mentioned people trying to hurt her in bizarre ways.

I know the things I wrote in the last few sentences seem kind of eccentric, harmless, and maybe even fun or goofy, but they are symptoms of a serious illness, and there is nothing harmless or humorous about them. If Duvall is psychotic, she may also be hearing voices (during the interview she mentioned a man that is hurting her that may very well be a voice that she hears). Hearing voices is a phenomenon that can be upbeat one moment and terrify the next; it can be extremely uncomfortable to those who experience it. At a minimum, Duvall deserves our respect, compassion and empathy and McGraw made her more of an object of sensationalized quirkiness than a woman who needs intervention, care, and long-term treatment.

Not only did the Dr. Phil show harm advocacy efforts towards giving a balanced and fair view of mental illnesses, but it may also have harmed Duvall as well. If Duvall can get medications that clear up her symptoms or at least make them manageable (knowing the difference between reality and delusions) then she may very well be embarrassed or shamed by that interview. In her vulnerable state (which should never have been made public) she may have opened herself up in ways that she normally wouldn’t have, and that could cause her further suffering.

Like all marginalized groups who suffer from popular stereotypes, mentally ill people long to be seen as we are and not as caricatures of our symptoms, sensationalistic representations of our illnesses, or in a case of extremes. For many of us, we look a lot like everyone else when we have proper treatment, but darn, that just isn’t as interesting and doesn’t sell advertising.

The Nation Lashes out at Mental Illness

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Yesterday I wrote a blog post about what schizophrenia is and what it is not. This post is similar but rather than look at the personal (stories about me) I am looking at how people view severe mental illness on a national level.

This election cycle was difficult for many people to get through. The things that we had to listen to on the nightly news were vulgar, intolerant and upsetting in so many ways. We experienced Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, mocking of the disabled, and then those of us who have a mental illness experienced something else: we experienced more insults and misunderstanding than I have encountered in the twenty plus years since I received a diagnosis.

Insulting language about mental illness was everywhere I looked. It filled up my Facebook feed: lunatic, unhinged, crazy, bat shit crazy, insane. It was in mainstream newspapers and used by pundits on the nightly news. Derogatory language about mental illness had become the norm for those who normally fight for marginalized people.

Seeing so much reference in a negative way about mental illness was startling and painful enough, but the reasons why people were using that language was even more alarming. People were confusing intolerance, hate speech, aggression, bigotry, misogyny, sexual assault and all manner of other disturbing things with symptoms of mental illness. None of those things have anything to do with mental illness.

I have symptoms like, depression, anxiety, auditory hallucinations, tactile hallucinations, visual hallucinations, social anxiety, lack of motivation, and isolating socially to name a few. As you can see, none of the things I mentioned as symptoms have to do with discriminating against, disliking, or being intolerant of other people. Also, none of them have to do with aggression.

What people did, millions of people, during this election is make being a racist, sexist, etc. into the definition of mentally ill and those things are not connected. This climate of inappropriate and inaccurate cause and effect impacted me so much I am only now able to write about it. Since the election, I have only seen this addressed once in an article on a news outlet like Huffington Post (I think that is where it was but I can’t be sure).

I felt as if all the social justice people completely abandoned the mentally ill and the nation decided that whatever unfavorable characteristic someone displayed it was due to mental illness. It was as if the title mental illness had become a dumping ground for all the things people find distasteful in others. We became not the trash collectors, but the trash.

Since so few people recognized that this was happening, and did nothing to change their language, I am sure that we will see much more of this over the next four years. The progress the mental health community achieved over the past few years in educating people about mental illness may very well be eroded by the current political climate. I hope the damage is not severe. Those of us who have once again been characterized by the media and the public as “bad” people will suffer the consequences of this latest wave of ignorance and misunderstanding.

What is Schizophrenia and What is not

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It’s Monday. I spent a busy weekend with my husband and had relatively few symptoms. In fact, other than some fear/paranoia, about the use of an ATM I was symptom-free. Because I had so few symptoms, I wondered, not for the first time, what part of me is my illness and what part of me is my character or personality?

In times when I am not psychotic or having a panic attack, I think what people see from me mostly is my personality and not my illness (even though they may think everything is my illness). Several things happened this weekend that made me think, even without schizophrenia, I am an imperfect person.

My husband and I went to a festive open house on Friday night. There were many galleries open, and people were ice skating to holiday music. A three-story Christmas tree lit up the courtyard, and we were in search of pumpkin pie. I love pumpkin pie and I didn’t have any for Thanksgiving, so I wanted to make sure I had a piece before it disappears from menus. I was walking around the corner of a sidewalk, and six young men came in the opposite direction, one of the men slammed into me with half of his body. I yelled, “OWWWWWW!” He didn’t stop. He didn’t look back. He didn’t say excuse me, or that he was sorry.” In my anger, I yelled, “F****er!” Immediately after I yelled it, I regretted it, not because I was worried about his feelings but because I was worried that the six young men might decide to start a fight with my husband. Obviously, there are times, when my anger gets the best of me, and I don’t have the best judgment. This incident is an example of my personality and not my schizophrenia, and I find it to be something I should work on.

On Saturday night my husband and I went to a holiday celebration that attracts over 350,000 people over two days. It was extremely crowded. There were times when people would stop in the path of where others were walking, and I would get frustrated. During one such time, I said quite loudly, “Seriously?” And a woman looked back at me with such a hateful look. When I got past the people stopped, I saw a person in a wheelchair. I felt terrible because it must be so difficult to want to attend a holiday function that is not easily accessible for the disabled. Also, I never want a person in a wheelchair to feel like they are a burden in any way. I felt bad about my impatience. This incident is again part of my personality and not my illness.

There were other things that happened over the weekend that I felt good about and they too have to do with my personality and not my illness. I let a young mother go in front of me in a long line in the restroom so her little girl wouldn’t have to wait any longer. I offered to share our table in a very busy outdoor beer garden with a couple that I saw walking toward the table at the same time we were, but I managed to get there first. The couple did share our table, and we had a nice conversation. We also told a group of young women we were leaving in advance so they could secure the table and not have to stand around.

I once read that in a relationship if you criticize your partner you need to say one thousand nice things to them to erase the impact of the harm you caused. I wonder if the same is true in the world: if we act negatively, hostile, impatiently or rudely to another person do we have to do one thousand nice things to set the world right again? I think maybe we do.

After this weekend’s events, I am going to be working on completing one thousand nine hundred and ninety-seven random acts of kindness to put the world right again, and it all has to do with my personality and not my illness. My illness isn’t to blame for everything; I am responsible for so much of what I think, say and do just like you.

Choosing a Word for 2017

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Last year, around this time, I picked a word that I hoped would define 2016. I picked the word, “ATTEMPT.” It is written and posted on my wall in black and red ink on the left side of my computer. I have looked at it all year. It has not defined this year at all. I did, attempt to go to work several times. Remember the Amazon Prime Now job I landed and didn’t make it through the first day? There were others as well. Regarding employment, I guess I did attempt to become employed. I didn’t attempt much else, though.

One of my big goals for 2016 was to have an essay about something other than schizophrenia accepted to a literary magazine. Well, I was successful at reaching that goal. I had The Extraordinary Ordinary Death published in Angels Flight: literary west. The essay will be published again in a book by Brightly Press early in 2017.

I think much of this year I was distracted, nervous, concerned, and extremely anxious about the election. The campaign was horrible to watch as the country dove nose first into vulgarity, intolerance, and division. I hated it. I hated watching it, and the leftovers of it, along with the increase in hate crimes and hate speech, fake news, possible corruption, and scandals, has torn a hole in my heart that I am not sure will heal completely. If that hole does heal, the scar tissue it leaves will forever impact the way my pulse beats. Much of what I thought about America may not be true, and because I love this country so much that is like a loss or like surgery, a removal of something dear. I want a breather from bad news, but it seems to come at me daily.

Because my word for 2016 was so inaccurate in defining the year, I wasn’t going to choose a word for 2017, but then I decided to give it one more try. At first, I thought I would choose the word, “RESIST.” I felt like I could work toward resisting intolerance, hate, division, despair and I felt like I could try my hardest to resist my symptoms of schizophrenia. When I say the word, it hits my ear as negative, though. I feel as if the word will make me feel as if I am constantly fighting. I don’t want to spend 2017 pushing against everything, some things, yes, but not everything.

I thought about choosing the word, “HOPE.” Hope is a word that makes me feel like the cliché: light at the end of the tunnel. It brings me thoughts that everything will eventually be okay. Hope is a good word, but I didn’t feel it would push me to act. I need 2017 to be a year of action. I need to do more. I need to work harder at advocacy. I need to work harder at my writing. I need to send more work out and write more letters to politicians and government officials. I would like to have even more of my writing that isn’t about schizophrenia published (this is important to me because it means I can define myself first as a writer not someone with schizophrenia).

For all of these reasons and much more, I am choosing the word, “ACT.” To act is what I hope for in 2017. Do you have a word for 2017?  If not, will you join me in ACT(ing) out the steps that make your dreams possible? Let’s ACT out the best people we can be, today, tomorrow and all of 2017.

25 Days of Kindness and Cheer

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Currently, there is so much hatred being planned and executed in the world. We need an avalanche of kindness, compassion, and concern. Count me in among the ones to take the first step on the mountain that makes the snow become unsteady and start to shift.

Thanksgiving is over. Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and the New Year are right around the corner. We are in the midst of the holiday season, and this is the time I reach out more to strangers, smile more often at faces I don’t recognize, wish people well in almost every interaction, and buy coffee, meals, and presents for loved ones and strangers alike.

I love the holidays. I love the goodwill that is often shown to people in public and in private. This year, the election has left a country divided. Many people feel extreme anger, fear, and uncertainty about their future and the future of things they care about and love. There is no need to feel hopeless, though. Little actions done on a daily basis can change lives and change the world.

On Facebook, I announced that I was making an Advent calendar of kindness and cheer, and I asked people for suggestions. I know it is already December 2nd, but there are still many days left until Christmas to put these actions on your to-do list. I plan to write each of these things down, stick them in envelopes, shuffle the envelopes and then number them 1-25 (or 2-25 because we are starting a day late). I will open and complete one action each day until Christmas.

Here are highlights of some of the best suggestions I received:

  1. Buy coffee for a stranger in your favorite coffee shop
  2. Donate your magazines to a senior center
  3. Put money in someone else’s parking meter
  4. Offer to carry someone’s groceries
  5. Bake cookies, bread or a holiday treat for someone who is alone or elderly
  6. Make soup and gift it to people who rarely get a home cooked meal
  7. Buy $5 Starbucks or Subway cards and give them to people living on the street
  8. Serve a meal at a soup kitchen
  9. Donate food to a soup kitchen
  10. Buy a ham or turkey for a low-income family
  11. Offer to babysit for a single mom or dad
  12. Write a letter to a friend or relative
  13. Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time
  14. Donate coats and jackets to an organization that works with the homeless
  15. Buy socks for an organization that works with the homeless
  16. Donate sample sized shampoo and conditioner to an organization that works with the homeless
  17. Donate books to a women’s shelter
  18. Donate business clothes to an organization that helps people secure employment
  19. Smile and say hello to all the people you pass
  20. Sign up to do a 5K walk for an organization in your community
  21. Shovel snow or rake leaves for a neighbor
  22. Let someone go ahead of you in a line
  23. Tell your friends or family (or both) the things you most cherish about them
  24. Donate a toy (or gift) to foster children
  25. Clean out your closets and cupboards and donate all that you don’t use to Goodwill or another organization with a nonprofit thrift store.

Join me in spreading goodwill this holiday season. I’ll meet you where kindness and compassion live – let’s be neighbors.

 

Everyone has an Opinion: Identity Politics

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My head is spinning, and I don’t know which direction to take my thoughts. I have read much more than usual over these past two years trying to educate myself on racial issues, disability issues, LGBTQ issues and many other things that fall under identity politics. I have gone in so many directions by reading that I am at a standstill. I have been silenced for months now. I am afraid to speak up and afraid to have an opinion.

In the current political climate of increased hatred where people of color or people dressed in religious clothing fear harassment and possibly violence, I have watched actions of solidarity (like wearing a safety pin) to identify allies in public, be torn apart by people claiming it is a sign of privilege. People also claim it is too little too late, and generally a stupid idea. People have criticized the act of wearing a safety pin as something that only benefits the wearer making them feel good (like they can pat themselves on the back for not being a part of the problem).

When acts of hatred started to increase with a terrifying frequency in this country I wanted to do something to let people know, I didn’t feel the same way as the people perpetrating these acts. When I heard about the safety pin, I pinned one to my shirt the next time I went out. In a museum, a woman of color also was wearing a safety pin. We spoke about our fear, our sadness, our desire to represent something other than division and hatefulness in the world. We wanted people to know we would not sit idly by if someone decided to harass them. Of course, I didn’t think wearing a safety pin was the only thing I could do or even the only thing I should do. I made a renewed commitment to try and read more essays from marginalized voices. I immediately started calling on my senators and representatives.

Even though I had a wonderfully human moment while wearing the safety pin, I only left the house once wearing one. I read so much criticism and so many people trying to shame people who only wanted to find a concrete way to show support in public that I was afraid to act. I was afraid of offending the very people I was trying so hard to show that I am an ally.

I am not immune to hatred. I have a husband who is brown, and I have a severe mental illness (schizophrenia – the most stigmatized of the mental illnesses). Also, I have spent two years trying to educate myself on the reality of other marginalized groups. In other words, I am not the enemy. I may not always make choices that suit everyone regarding how I go about being an ally, but my heart is always in the right place which is to stay I stand beside and not in front of the oppressed. Can I use more education? Yes, I think that I will need to continue my education until I die. I will never be perfect. I will never be completely “woke” to every instance of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, Islamophobia, etc.

I have read enough articles and essays to be aware that this piece of writing would probably be torn apart by some for what is called “white fragility.”  White fragility is the inability of white people to accept the calling out of their privilege. Look, let’s get real here: I see the people like me filthy dirty, with torn clothes, matted hair and yelling in the street. I see the media portrayal of people like me as dangerous serial killers. I see the people like me (who account for half of all of those shot by police) killed by bullets. I see the people like me being warehoused in prisons instead of hospital or community treatment. I see the people like me dying an average of twenty years sooner than their peers. I know and live stigma and discrimination every single day. I may be white, but I am also a part of a group that is dehumanized every single day by huge numbers of people, organizations, the media, etc.

During this election cycle, I have seen derogatory mental health terms used over and over again to describe one of the candidates. I have seen hatred and bigotry ascribed to mental illness (which is so far from accurate). I have seen more use of the words, lunatic, unhinged, crazy, tinfoil hat, etc. It has been widespread and those terms repeatedly being used by many of the same critics of the safety pin and those who would shame others for not being fully “woke” on every issue.

I may always come under fire from those I want to support, but the same is not true for those who want to support me or people like me. If you want to be an ally to the mentally ill, I am going to ask you to keep reading what I and others with a mental illness write. Please keep supporting our voices in publications and on popular websites. Please try to understand us and if you can think of a way to let me know that you care about my experience and safety, I won’t shame you. I promise. I will welcome you as an ally. If you want to wear a safety pin to support people with schizophrenia, I would be thankful, and I might even buy you a cup of coffee. We could talk about the fact that my favorite breed of dog is the French bulldog and how I wasn’t a cat person until I inherited a cat from my brother’s partner who died from AIDS.  You know, we could just talk and get to know each other instead of adding to this division we could add building blocks of friendship and humanity. Because that’s what it all comes down to folks – being human- it’s tough, and it’s beautiful, and we are imperfect as hell.

Shutting Down the Screen

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Sitting in Starbucks, I look out the window at all the people walking down the street. Going where? Places. Faces. Moving. The world is traveling faster than I am. Millions of songs I have never heard. Hundreds of millions of books I have never read. So many countries and cities I have never seen. I can’t keep up. Social media travels so quickly. Food I have never eaten pictured on my newsfeed, along with what is considered “in” regarding popular culture. Trends. Fashion. Politically correct language and scenarios. I am going to slow down, step back and synthesize all that I have learned about people, places, art, changes in our language, our speech, our culture. I can’t incorporate all the information as quickly as it passes by me. I have enough new information to chew on for many years. Enough to help me grow, develop, change. But without a break from the lightning fast speed of all that information I can’t use what I’ve learned. Ideas need to germinate like seeds. I need water and the sun and space and time to breathe. I’ll miss the updates, but I am certain my roots will grow deeper, and my branches will become heavy with fruit from stepping away from the screens and learning to live life without the constant ding of a notification.

When Failure is not Negative

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It isn’t always easy to admit, but I am good at some things. One of those things is being honest and not being afraid to fail. When I was unable to be successful at the warehouse job, I wrote about it. I didn’t hide it. I didn’t make excuses. I wasn’t embarrassed.

Today, at the place where my husband volunteers many people asked how it was going with my new job. My husband told them he didn’t think it was going to work out. He wasn’t embarrassed by the truth of what happened, but he wasn’t sure if I would want people to know.

I don’t care if people know that I have limits, that I frequently receive rejections for my writing, and that when it came to this particular job, I couldn’t do it.

I try to do most of the things that other people do, but there are times when I am unable to. Those are the times that I have to admit to myself, “Oh my God, I have schizophrenia.”  I know that sounds silly, but it is true. I have symptoms of my illness every day, so it seems obvious that my diagnosis would always be at the forefront of my mind, but it isn’t. When I see a part-time job that sounds interesting, I think, “That would be cool; I’ll apply.”  A similar thing happens when I read about an interesting place, I think, “How cool. We could take a trip there.”

I feel like it is both positive and negative that I think this way. On the one hand, I don’t see any obstacles to my life, and at the same time, it sets me up for failure, disappointment, and some major episodes (if my husband isn’t successful in talking me out of whatever it is I am trying to do).

Is it better to see ourselves as completely and promisingly capable or to see ourselves as limited and frail? I think it is better to see myself and my abilities as one big possibility and deal with the failures as they come. I don’t want to feel beaten by this life or this disease. Am I unrealistic? Am I over-reaching? Yes, to both of those things.  But as someone who usually thinks the worst thing is going to happen in any given situation, this belief that I am not bound by my illness is almost a relief.  It is the one area where I happen to be an optimist, and I’m not going to criticize myself for that.

Somewhere deep inside I must know that when I stop being excited about possibilities when I stop trying, or constantly say to myself, “I can’t do that.” Then schizophrenia has taken over my life and defeated me in a way that will have an impact on my joy, enthusiasm, and creativity.

So, I’m good at failing and not at all ashamed of sharing my failures with others. It isn’t an award-winning characteristic, but it’s something rather unique in our social media (perfection driven) society.  I am real and honest, and those qualities are rare today. I’m going to take pride in that – no failure there. Nope. No failure at all.

 

Expectations, Conditioning and the Messages that Haunt my Mind

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Recently, there was an article on a major website, and the message was, getting out of bed is the most we can hope for on certain days, or in other words, on some days success is measured just by getting out of bed. The premise of this article sounds reasonable especially for those who suffer from depression, but I want more for my life and expect more from myself.

If getting out of bed is the most we can hope for then our treatment isn’t working and needs to be adjusted. Some of us have symptoms on a daily basis, and some of those days it is too difficult to accomplish much. Not accomplishing anything isn’t acceptable to me, though and that is why I keep looking for a part-time job that I can manage.

Just because someone has a severe mental illness doesn’t mean they don’t have the same conditioning as other people in this society. Television, social media, magazines, all of these things condition us into thinking productivity defines our lives. We are also conditioned to think things about beauty, success, and happiness.

I think this conditioning is particularly hard for people with a disability. For example, being thin is considered beautiful, and most of us on anti-psychotic medication are battling with side effects of weight gain (along with high sugar levels and high cholesterol). I go through periods where I don’t watch my weight, and I can easily gain twenty pounds. I get a warning from the doctor, and I go back to watching my weight, and I am usually able to get it under control, but it takes effort, discipline, and self-awareness. Not everyone who is living with a mental illness can follow their treatment and make sure they manage their weight at the same time. One of those things is hard, add them both together and it takes real strength, organization, and many other skills.

Even though we have a mental illness, we are not immune to the messages or conditioning of society. Some of us can’t function at the same level as others, but it doesn’t stop us from feeling pressure to do so. It isn’t just weight gain and productivity that can get us down, though. We frequently don’t have the same amount of money as others because we have to pay for treatment or can’t work so we also don’t have the same material items that others consider mandatory (like an iPhone).

I wish I were evolved enough to say that none of this matters; being thin doesn’t make you happy (and isn’t the only standard for beauty), and neither does having the latest smartphone or a cool job. I have to admit I am not evolved, though and the thing that bothers me most and is the most difficult for me is productivity. If I get to the end of my day and I haven’t accomplished anything I am so disappointed and almost disgusted with myself.

I know that many of us are not capable of holding down a 40 hour a week job, and there are few part-time jobs that are flexible enough to manage (I keep looking for them) but even though this is true, many of us still feel the need to contribute and to be productive. It would be great to be happy binge watching television (I never turn it on before 6 pm) or just lying around, but I don’t know anyone who is happy with a life like that. On bad days when I have a hard time with symptoms, I still feel like there was still time for me to produce something. For some people that something may be cleaning their house, cooking, knitting, or painting. For me, it is writing. I need to write every day to feel as if I have been successful (that doesn’t mean I can write every day, I can’t, but on those days that I am not able to write, I feel miserable).

I wish that article about how sometimes just getting out of bed is considered a successful day were true (it would make it easier on the egos of those of us with a mental illness). I don’t think it is, though. I can’t imagine that conditioning and the messages from society don’t impact most people in the same way they impact me. We have to struggle to undo those messages, and as hard as I struggle, some of them (productivity) seem to be wound tightly around my psyche unwilling to unwind.